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Ag. commissioner and legislature at odds over bills dictating how money is spent at state fairgrounds

State Fair
Photo courtesy of the MDAC

Tensions are flaring between the Mississippi legislature and Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson over two bills aimed at establishing oversight of how money is spent on events and upgrades at the state fairgrounds.

House Bill 1357, which revises the authority of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), and Senate Bill 2361, which modifies how the department would be able to spend money it receives, have been scrutinized by Gipson as an attempt by lawmakers to take control of private donations he has acquired for events in his jurisdiction.

More specifically, the proposed legislation would give lawmakers the authority to disperse funds for repairs to infrastructure at the Agriculture Museum and the state fairgrounds as well as the events that take place there such as the Dixie National Rodeo and Live Stock Show and the Mississippi State Fair

The agriculture commissioner argues that being at the mercy of the legislature to appropriate funding for events and operations at the fairgrounds could yield harsh repercussions like private sponsors withdrawing their financial contributions. He finds the measures to be a bad-faith move by greedy members of the legislature.

“I have already been contacted by the main Dixie National Rodeo and State Fair sponsors, as well as by dozens of other event promoters who are adamantly opposed to these bills,” Gipson said in a statement. “They see this as a money grab by the Legislature; a true attempt to confiscate their voluntary private sponsorship dollars by the State.”

Senate Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson believes otherwise. He noted that all other state agencies have to go through a special board or through the legislature to acquire funding for projects and that the Department of Agriculture and Commerce should not be granted any special treatment.

“This is not a bill about our current [agriculture] commissioner … This bill is not a ‘sweeps’ bill. This is not to try to sweep any special funds from the department of [agriculture] and commerce,” Hopson said. “This just says they’re going to be appropriated funds just like any other state agency.”

In addition, the legislation would also establish parameters by which naming rights for facilities at the state fairgrounds and the Agriculture Museum can be granted. If a private entity wants to have its name or the title of a business attached to a facility under MDAC’s jurisdiction, it would first have to receive a stamp of approval from the governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state.

Hopson said that this measure was put in place to remedy a loophole that was created in 2020 when the Mississippi Fair Commission, which handled operations and naming rights at the fairgrounds, was disbanded and all of its duties were handed to MDAC.

“I can’t think of any other place or state agency where one person would have the authority to be able to rename a building or to lease the rights to a building,” Hopson said in justification of the provision. “I think it’s good oversight for the [agriculture] commission. I think it’s proper for us or some other authority to take a look at any type of naming rights.”

Gipson, staunchly opposed to the proposal, fears that this could spur a domino effect in which investors and sponsors no longer see the appeal of handing over cash for operations if their interests could be thwarted by the legislature or other government officials.

“The result of this legislation will either be diminished investment in the Mississippi State Fairgrounds and the Agriculture and Forestry Museum, or an increase in taxpayer dollars going toward those facilities instead of private sector dollars. Both outcomes are unnecessary,” Gipson added. “Past legislatures have created laws and policies for the Fairgrounds and Museum to operate under state control but in the mode of a business to save taxpayer dollars.”

This outcome, according to Gipson, would put the Mississippi State Fair, the Dixie National Rodeo, and other gatherings such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America youth events in jeopardy of no longer taking place at the fairgrounds in future years.

HB 1357 was approved by the House in an overwhelming 110-4 vote and has since been referred by the Senate. Meanwhile, SB 2361 is heading to the House after passing its original chamber by a 48-3 vote.

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